Juan Sebastián Elcano (Guetaria, November 30, 1476-Pacific Ocean, August 4, 1526) was a Spanish sailor who completed the first circumnavigation of the world in the Magellan-Elcano expedition, after the death of Ferdinand Magellan.
Juan Sebastián Elcano was born on an unknown date, probably around 1486, in the town of Guetaria, province of Guipúzcoa (at that time a territory of the Crown of Castile). There is no great doubt about the birthplace of the famous sailor, since Juan Sebastián Elcano himself mentioned his birthplace in his will. The local tradition says that he was born in a house-tower already disappeared that was located in a lot of the street of San Roque of the Old Helmet of this locality. A plaque near the place commemorates this supposed fact.
His parents were Domingo Sebastián de Elcano and Catalina del Puerto. It is believed that Juan Sebastián belonged to a family of fishermen and well-to-do sailors, who had their own house and boat with which they engaged in trade. First-born of nine siblings, biographical information is known about some of them. Domingo, named after his father, was a priest and parish priest in Guetaria. Martín Pérez, Antón Martín and Ochoa Martín were sailors like Juan Sebastián and took part with him in the expedition of García Jofre de Loaísa. Martín Pérez was pilot of one of the ships of this expedition. He also had a half-sister, María, illegitimate daughter of his father. His mother Catalina would survive the death of Juan Sebastián, as he mentioned her as his heir in his will.
He had a first daughter in Guetaria when he was young and a second one in Valladolid with his wife María de Vidaurreta, when he went to account for his trip to Emperor Charles I. He also had a son, Domingo del Cano, with Mari Hernández de Hernialde, whom he named as his heir in his will.
His surname has been transcribed in different ways, such as “Elcano”, “de Elcano”, “de El Cano”, “del Cano” or “el Cano”. The signature of the sailor, which is preserved in several documents, uses the form “del cano”, which can be interpreted in several ways. In many old documents he was named as “Juan Sebastián del Cano”, which has given rise to doubts about his real surname. However, the most widespread version is that due to his place of birth, if not Juan Sebastián himself, at least his paternal family was from Elcano, a place near Guetaria, where the surname comes from. Elcano is a modest neighborhood of farmhouses that is currently divided between the municipalities of Zarauz and Aya, located on the border of both together with Guetaria, from which it is only eight kilometers away. “Del Cano” or “el Cano” would be a transcription error of the original gentilicio surname by adding the preposition “de” as was usual at that time and confusing it with the much more common surname Cano. In contemporary times the speakers of Basque have also extended the spelling “Elkano”, transcription of the surname to the orthography of modern academic Basque. About his maternal family, it seems that this one was native of the own port of Guetaria.
From a very young age, he enlisted in fishing and commercial ships, so he acquired great seafaring experience. By 1509 he had a two hundred ton ship with which he took part in the military expedition against Algiers, which was led by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros. Later he took part in another campaign in Italy, this time under the orders of the Great Captain.
During this last campaign, Elcano had to mortgage his ship to some Savoy merchants in order to pay the wages owed to his crew, who had threatened to mutiny. The Basque navigator was waiting for the arrival of the economic compensation owed to him by the Crown for the services rendered in the military campaign in Italy, but it never arrived, so, unable to pay off his debt on time, he was forced to hand over his ship to the Savoyards. In doing so, Elcano incurred in a crime, since a law in force at the time forbade the sale of armed vessels to foreigners in times of war.
First circumnavigation of the globe
Around 1518 or 1519, he settled in Seville, where he learned of the project being prepared by the Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan, to discover a route to the East Indies from the west, through a passage or strait through the south of America, which would lead to the islands of the spices (the Moluccas) without the need to skirt the African continent or cross Portuguese domains. Magellan”s expedition had great difficulty in recruiting a crew due to the uncertainty of the voyage, so it was largely made up of desperate people, debtors and outlaws of justice, such as Elcano himself.
Thus, in 1519 Elcano enlisted in Magellan”s expedition. His experience as a seaman earned him a relatively important position in the expedition: he was appointed master (second in command) of the Concepción, one of the five ships that made up the squadron. Its captain was Gaspar de Quesada and the pilot, the Portuguese Juan López de Carvalho.
The expedition had begun in Seville on August 10, 1519, the date on which the departure of the five-ship squadron, captained by Ferdinand Magellan, was announced, descending the Guadalquivir until reaching Sanlúcar de Barrameda (Cádiz), a port overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. During the following weeks, the squadron”s provisioning was completed and other matters were resolved, while Magellan himself granted a will in Seville on August 24.
On September 20, the expedition left Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and continued the journey to find the sea passage to the East Indies territories and search for the way that, always crossing Castilian seas (according to the Treaty of Tordesillas), would reach the islands of the Spices, which was the so-called route to the west, which Christopher Columbus had already sought.
The expedition was plagued with setbacks and difficulties. Among them was the uprising of part of the crew, led by captains Gaspar de Quesada, Juan de Cartagena and Luis Mendoza during the first winter in Puerto San Julián. It is very likely that Elcano was among the sympathizers of the failed mutiny against Magellan.
After Magellan”s death in the Philippines, in 1521, during a skirmish with the natives, Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa was elected head of the expedition and Juan Sebastián Elcano was put in charge of the Victoria. After arriving at the Moluccas, the goal of the voyage, the return to Spain was undertaken.
The Trinidad sailed badly and remained in the port of Tidore to be repaired and return through the Pacific to Panama. Elcano finally took command of the return expedition. He had the problem of returning to Spain with what was left of the expedition, without knowing the way back through the Pacific, and it seemed crazy to try, so he chose to sail westward through the Portuguese seas, skirting Africa by known routes and with the possibility of making watering holes. Henry of Malacca (a slave that Magellan had acquired on a previous voyage) was still part of the expedition and may have been the first person to circumnavigate the globe when the expedition reached Malacca.
As Pigafetta narrates, after crossing the Indian Ocean and circumnavigating Africa, Elcano was the first person to complete the circumnavigation of the globe, as he managed to complete the expedition and reach the port of departure, Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on September 6, 1522 on the ship Victoria, along with 17 other survivors, which was an impressive feat for the time.
Elcano, eager to reach Seville, barely stopped in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. On the same day of arrival he took into his service a boat to tow the Victoria up the Guadalquivir to Seville, due to the poor condition of the ship. The officers of the Casa de la Contratación de Indias in Seville prepared a boat with 12 oars, loaded with fresh provisions. The city authorities and the members of the Casa de la Contratación were waiting at the dock, together with a large audience that watched the arrival of the rickety ship.
Thanks to Providence, on Saturday, September 6, 1522, we entered the bay of San Lúcar…. From the time we had left the bay of San Lúcar until we returned to it we sailed, by our reckoning, more than fourteen thousand four hundred and sixty leagues, and circumnavigated the whole world, … On Monday, September 8, we dropped anchor near the Seville dock, and discharged all our artillery.
Elcano requested from King Charles I of Spain for his exploit the habit of knight of the Order of Santiago (the same that Magellan had), the Capitanía Mayor de la Armada and a permit to bear arms, but these honors were denied through his secretary Francisco de los Cobos; However, the king granted him an annual income of five hundred ducats, a really important sum, and a shield with two branches of cinnamon, three walnuts and twelve cloves (the true objective of the expedition), as well as a sphere of the world with the Latin legend: Primus circumdedisti me (You were the first to circumnavigate me).
In 2017 the Historical Archive of Euskadi released a letter from Elcano to Charles I, with the demands for his exploit. Also included is the king”s response, who granted little of what he asked for except a generous pension for life, although Elcano never received it.
Second expedition to the Moluccas
After executing his will on July 26th, being already very ill, but of sound mind and natural judgment, he died of scurvy on August 4th, 1526, on board the ship Santa María de la Victoria, another ship different from the one with which he completed the circumnavigation of the world, but with the same name, while participating in the expedition of García Jofre de Loaísa to the Moluccas Islands. At that time, among the witnesses who signed his will was another famous Spanish sailor, Andrés de Urdaneta.
There is also a version that states that Elcano did not die of scurvy, but was intoxicated by eating a large fish, probably barracuda “with teeth like a dog” (Andrés de Urdaneta), “and all the main men who ate with him also died, almost in 40 days” (Juan de Mazuecos). According to this hypothesis, he died of ciguatera.
Two original documents handwritten by Elcano have been preserved in the archives of the Archivo General de Indias in Seville and the Archivo Histórico de Euskadi in Bilbao.
In 1800 a sculpture was erected in the main square of Guetaria, the work of the sculptor Alfonso Girardo Bergaz, which was destroyed during the siege of the town in 1836 during the First Carlist War.
In the monastery of Santa Faz in Alicante there is a 1944 text written in tiles, thanking the 24 gold ducats that Elcano donated to the monastery in 1526; although it was not until 1944 that the Spanish Navy donated 15,000 pesetas to fulfill what was stipulated in the will.
Other statues and monuments are: